New York does it, Boston does it, now Needham is following suit to promote top quality health standards in dining establishments. From school lunches to dinner service at popular town restaurants, all will be given a score and can earn a certificate of excellence.
Launching Nov. 1, the pilot program will operate behind the scenes for six months. Some 14 restaurants have volunteered to participate in the formal feedback process, but every establishment will be under review.
“Our main goal is to incentivize our food establishments,” said Tara Gurge, assistant director of public health. “We’re constantly going on food inspections and writing up the same violations. We want to incentivize them to not have the same violations every time.”
The response from restaurant owners was mixed. “Some are concerned with how this will affect operations. Others are confident in their staff and feel it’s a good way to get recognition,” said Tim McDonald, director of public health.
Other towns and cities in the area have instituted similar programs with varied success. In Newton, the program was too complex; other communities that used a letter grading system found the relationship between the health inspector and the restaurants became antagonistic. After much research, Needham’s health department developed an honor roll-type program that recognizes excellence.
McDonald said the department felt it was important to try a more public-facing program that offered greater transparency for the consumer. They were motivated by the situation at Rice Barn on Great Plain Avenue and a couple of other restaurants, which had repeated violations of the food code and were repeatedly shut down.
“They limped along and would correct [the violation]. Then they’d get another and correct it,” said McDonald. “We were frustrated we didn’t see progress, and they were right on the line or failing most of the time.”
He said Needham is very fortunate with few exceptions. “We have very well run restaurants, and owners and managers who take very seriously the desire to prevent food-borne illness.”
The department will be heavily focused on feedback it receives from the establishments themselves in order to create a standardized process that is consistent within the department and makes clear what is expected of restaurants.
“We want it to be well vetted and get everyone on the same page before anything goes live,” said Gurge. “We don’t want this to be too harsh on the small businesses in town.”
The system works on a 100-point scale, with any establishment earning a 90% or above receiving a certificate of excellence it can display. The infractions are weighted, with “priority” issues dealing with foodborne illness taking a seven point deduction; “priority foundation” concerns dealing with controlling risk factors for illness incurring a five point loss; and “core items” such as general maintenance and operations costing two points. This point system is designed to streamline the process, create consistency among inspectors and reduce the number of repeat followup visits.
“[Restaurant owners] have questions like, ‘If I run out of dish soap am I getting an F?’ It is a violation and they need to fix it, but it’s not like a fridge that has beef and chicken and is at 70 degrees and not 40,” said McDonald. He emphasized that they’re not trying to punish anyone. “We want to better inform consumers, reward the high performing restaurants, recognize sustained excellence, and push those who aren’t high to incentivize good behavior.”
Currently, all food establishments are required to let consumers know that inspection reports are available at the health department upon request. If the pilot is successful and the program becomes public, consumers will have information more readily available.
“The public can go online and see inspection results and gauge where they want to eat,” said Gurge.
The department just completed four mandatory training sessions for food service staff to prepare for this pilot program, including one in Spanish. Over the next six months, it will work with more than 100 establishments using this new system. At the end it will review the results with each one and tell them what their rating would be. The department will also review all feedback and see where adjustments can be made. If all goes well, Gurge said they hope to roll out the program publicly next summer.
“My hope is that we have a successful pilot and get good feedback to the program that we need to, and then launch in every establishment,” said Board of Health Chair Tejal Gandhi.